Tumtum is a premedical biblical term, referring to a human being with ambiguous genitalia. On Monday, the term will be translated into art in New York City as part of an Art/Gender/Judaism discussion. Israeli artist Gil Yefman, who will perform and take part in the discussion, opens up about his exploration of gender through the years.

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Gil Yefman's art deconstructs and transforms canonized and familiar myths from varied beliefs and traditions, and his personal life story, being born and raised in Israel, makes it no surprise: "When I was a teen I suffered from gender dysphoria, which had first manifested as anorexia nervosa," Gil says. "I tried to gain control over my body and stop its 'natural' development which seemed so awkward to me. In my days of adolescence the use of hormone blocking was impossible under the age of 18, so the anorexia helped me to avoid social interaction in that sense as well."


As a kid, Gil couldn't express his wish to become a woman. "My parents didn't know anything about it," he says, "and then witnessed my anorexia and tried to understand better what I was going through. They supported me the best they could." Finally, when he turned 18, Gil started taking hormones in order to begin gender transition. "My older sister Rona, who is an amazing artist and photographer documented this sex change process as well as documenting our close relationship. But after two years of living as a woman 24\7 I came to realize how limiting this man\woman binary division is," he says, "so I started to rebel against it. This is also true for any kind of Either\Or division. In any case, I didn't want my happiness to be dependent on medications and hormones produced out of horse urine, so I stopped taking them."

9731016_300x300Another struggle for Gil was joining the Israeli army, which back then had less experience with transgender, genderqueer and non-binary people. "I remember my psychotherapist wrote me a recommendation letter when I tried to enlist in the army, but the army couldn't accept it and I was released from service on a mental status," Gil says.

According to him, having the 'mental' status on your army-release form was not acceptable in Israeli society. "I suffered from discrimination because people wouldn't hire me," he recalls. "Nowadays it seems better, but still, Israel has a long way to go in regards to equality, and not only in gender and sexual orientation, but equality for all minorities."

In his art, Yefman embraced the art of knitting, which is not only unique, but also he's so good at it that he will astonish you doing it on stage. "My grandma used to knit for us as kids, but I put it in my art only later on," Gil says. "The knitting has many added values to it. Some of the objects/subjects are tough but the softness of the wool allows it. As viewers, the connection to the object is deep and inevitable, because most of us wear it and play with knitted dolls in our childhood. So there's a transgenerational energy to it.

"There are also therapeutic qualities and it is used in occupational therapy. It's a great tool for reflection and it resembles writing: small monotonous movements which create the text and textures, the object."

His latest performance is called 'TUMTUM,' borrowing that genderqueer biblical term. "In modern Hebrew Tumtum means only 'Stupid' and is used as a common curse," Gil says. "This etymological evolution caught my attention and led me to create this gender monstrosity, which is super tactile and also makes pre-language sounds. An integral part of Tumtum is my knitting performance that goes along with it."

Art-wise, for Gil, gender identity encompasses a whole spectrum of social and political aspects. "It reveals patterns of behavior and false authenticity," he says. "We are all performers the minute we open our eyes and then our closets, literally. My art is all about finding new ways of freedom and self expression, and I'm glad I went through some gender troubles in Israel which is a very patriarchal macho-type environment. In recent years I also connect gender with collective trauma and other topics where it plays important roles."

Gil Yefman perform with TUMTUM Monday evening on the panel discussion at JTS: Art/Gender?Judaism: Transforming Identitiessummerevening-poem
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